Look at the nations and watch—
and be utterly amazed.
For I am going to do something in your days
that you would not believe,
even if you were told.
The verse from today’s reading posted above was very, very popular at Wheaton College when I studied there. I can’t count how many worship services included these words read or recited in hushed tones as music played in the background. We were poised and ready. We were watching and preparing to be utterly amazed: God was going to do something in our day that we would not believe, even if we had been told.
Looking back now, I have a few concerns. I’m not sure how we concluded that God was talking to us in this passage, a room of young adults in northern Illinois in the late 1990s. But on the other hand, there in this verse that speaks to the eternal character of God, so maybe we were right. God is probably always asking us to watch and be amazed at what He is doing in our day.
My primary concern is that we clearly did not read the rest of the chapter. Or the book. Or the prophets, generally. We waited and watched expectantly, excitedly. We thought God was going to do something wonderful.
And, I suppose God is. God’s ways are wonderful after all.
But the things we wouldn’t believe, even if we were told, was God raising up Babylon, the “ruthless and impetuous people”, the “feared and dreaded people.” God is going to use these evil people (and the prophet goes on and on about just how truly terrible they are) for His own purposes.
It’s clear the prophet himself can’t quite believe it. He confronts God about this choice:
Lord, are you not from everlasting?
My God, my Holy One, you will never die.
You, Lord, have appointed them to execute judgment;
you, my Rock, have ordained them to punish.
Your eyes are too pure to look on evil;
you cannot tolerate wrongdoing.
Why then do you tolerate the treacherous?
Why are you silent while the wicked
swallow up those more righteous than themselves? (Habakkuk 1:12-13)
There’s a tension here, and the prophet leaves it unresolved. Surely, even the wicked deeds of the Babylonians are, somehow, in God’s sovereign hands. And yet also, surely God is too good, too righteous and holy, to be associated with such violence.
In the coming chapters, God will provide a response—but the tension remains, then and now. Ultimately, we must confess that God is good, and His ways are higher than our short lives and limited vision can see.
We will see things we can hardly believe. And the best response, as the prophet will tell us, is this:
The Lord is in his holy temple;
let all the earth be silent before him. (Habakkuk 2:20)
Questions for reflection and discussion: When you read the Bible, do you read entire chapters, books, and genres, or do you pick out verses that feel meaningful to you? What is the benefits and drawbacks to this approach? Where is the tension in this chapter? What is your response?